Effective Leaders’ 5 Critical Conversations

Modified excerpt from “5 Conversations: How to Transform Trust, Engagement, and Performance at Work” by Nigel Purse and Nick Cowley, with Lynn Allison (Panoma Press).

In so many organizations today, leaders seem to have forgotten (or never learned) the power and importance of being simply human—of building personal trusting relationships with those they lead, of listening to others with care and humanity, of making things happen through deep emotional engagement with the people in their teams.

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, we believe there is now compelling evidence that we also need to enter a new era of leadership where the requirement for leaders to build and maintain genuinely trusting relationships with those they lead takes center stage.

We propose that working to build trusting relationships is your first and most profound duty as a leader. When you have trusting relationships with the people on your team, anything is possible; when trust is absent, little of long-term, sustainable value can be achieved.

We also believe that it is possible to work at, practice, and become better at building effective, trusting relationships by rediscovering a fundamental truth: the power of honest, authentic, two-way human conversations at work. Throughout human history, people have talked to each other—using gesture and touch, smiles and frowns, myths and stories—to build collaboration and trust and get things done. Somehow in today’s world of technology, e-mail, social media, remote working, and globalization, we have forgotten this simple truth.

Through our work with thousands of leaders in hundreds of organizations around the world, we have identified the five critical conversations that the most effective leaders use to build and sustain trusting relationships. Here are the conversations:

  1. Establishing a trusting relationship: A conversation with a team member to share a deep, mutual understanding of your respective drivers, preferences, motivators, and de-motivators for high performance at work, and to understand what makes each other tick.
  2. Agreeing on mutual expectations: A conversation about not only what you are both trying to achieve at work, but also why, and the expectations you can have to support each other in achieving these outcomes.
  3. Showing genuine appreciation: A conversation to help team members focus on where they are being successful, to jointly understand the reasons for their success, to say how much you appreciate their contribution, and find further ways in which they can deploy their skills and talents to benefit both themselves and the organization.
  4. Challenging unhelpful behavior: A conversation to agree on a new and more effective set of behaviors when what a team member or colleague is saying or doing is getting in the way of team performance.
  5. Building for the future: A conversation to explore the future career aspirations of team members and give you the best possible chance of creating conditions that will enable them to build that future career within your organization rather than elsewhere.

Building these conversations into your daily life at work (and beyond) will not only make you a more effective and productive leader, but also will give you a deep sense of fulfilment and an enhanced quality of life. No longer is it the case that the quality of the relationships you have at work is something random or mysterious. There is growing evidence that, whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, a technical expert or a generalist, a sales executive or an accountant, you can deepen your relationships by consciously building these key conversations into every day of your working life.

And the real beauty of this finding is that you don’t have to be slick, word perfect, or a great conversationalist for this to work. You just have to be authentic—to enter each conversation with the genuine intention of more deeply understanding your colleagues, showing care and stewardship, and providing support and encouragement.

This finding has a profound effect upon the nature of the training required to inspire leaders to build these conversations into their daily working lives. In the old days, we would have focussed on the skills required to hold the conversations. But we know from our work with thousands of leaders in hundreds of organizations that it’s not lack of skill that gets in the way of these conversations happening, it’s lack of will.

For this reason, we started holding face-to-face workshops about these five conversations to focus on letting leaders feel the emotional power of the conversations by holding them for real with each other. We know from the feedback we received, both at the end of the workshop, and, even more importantly, weeks and months later, that what people took away was the memory of the feelings they experienced and generated, by opening themselves up to others. Whether the group was an intact team, or a real cross-section of leaders from around the organization, participants reported that what inspired them to go back to work and build the conversations into their daily lives was experiencing their emotional impact first-hand.

We believe the same lesson can be applied to many other areas of skill that traditionally are taught in workshops where the skill is broken down into its constituent components of knowledge and behavior. It’s one thing to have the ability to demonstrate the skill in the workshop; it’s quite another to have the will to apply the skill back at work.

Perhaps many of our traditional skill-based training courses need to be redesigned to enable learners also to feel the emotional benefit of actually applying the skill in the real world.

Modified excerpt from the book “5 Conversations: How to Transform Trust, Engagement, and Performance at Work” by Nigel Purse and Nick Cowley, with Lynn Allison (Panoma Press). For more information, visit http://www.5conversations.co.uk/the_book

Nick Cowley is an ICF accredited coach and NLP master practitioner. He has corporate expertise in leading international projects, participating in merger and acquisition activity and significant organizational change programs, as well as designing and implementing learning and development architecture.

Founder of The Oxford Group, Nigel Purse is an experienced facilitator, writer, and speaker whose passion lies in developing management and leadership capability in both new and senior leaders in organizations worldwide. The Oxford Group has grown from its roots as a small company specializing in behavioral assessment to a global consultancy providing leadership and management development, as well as executive coaching. Purse and Cowley developed the 5 Conversations program, the concept from which their book was created.

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